He was making a proper nuisance of himself, whoever he was. I could hear the screams from the street.
I stepped out of the car and met the officer in charge, a woman named Ballantine, who I didn’t know but who I’d seen around once or twice.
“Thanks for coming,” she said, reaching a hand in greeting. “I know this isn’t really your thing, but I’ll be damned if we’ve had any luck talking him down. Word is, you speak this guy’s language. If you know what I mean.”
The yelling resumed and she led me in silence to the narrow, five-story building across the street. The fire escape zigzagged across the brick facade. Window-mounted AC units stuck out like bit tongues.
“Speaking of language,” I said, “any idea what that is?”
Ballantine shook her head as we walked up the stoop. “One of the patrolmen is Jewish. He said it sounded like Aramaic.”
“Do people speak Aramaic anymore?”
Another bout of shouting filled the foyer as we entered. Mailboxes were on the left. Stairs were on the right. The super’s residence was at the back.
“Fifth floor,” Ballantine said, making it clear she wasn’t coming. The noise was louder inside, and she had to raise her voice. “The sarge is up there. Just be careful.” She leaned close. She was a full head shorter than me. “He’s not real good with female officers.”
“And the family?”
“Taken away by ambulance. Father, mother, adult daughter, unmarried.”
“No.” The sounds stopped again and her voice fell to a whisper. “Just really shaken up. The mother has some kind of illness, I gathered. Supposed to be serious. The ambulance was mostly for her. The other two went to make sure she was okay.”
I nodded. “And you were happy to get them off the scene.”
“Anyone else in the unit?”
“Just the evil spirit.” Ballantine smiled.
I started up the stairs, four flights to the top. The yelling came and went and got louder around each turn. Residents, who I’m sure had been directed to stay inside their homes, peered from behind cracked doors. I smelled dust and dried coriander.
I removed my firearm, holster and all, and handed it to the patrolman who was crouched against the wall on the last landing. He looked to be about half my age. “Hold this.”
He looked at it. “You know he’s armed, right?”
“That’s what they said on the radio.” I kept the weapon extended.
He looked at it. “Your funeral.” He took it with a shrug.
“Just follow your damned orders!” The uniformed sergeant at the top of the stairs barked down in an urgent whisper.
I walked up to him as the man in the room started screaming again. He was pissed about something and letting the whole world know. Language definitely sounded Semitic, like Arabic or Hebrew. Lots of soft consonants and recurrent syllables.
“How long’s he been in there?” I stood close to the sarge and kept my voice down.
His name tag said Rollins, and he was as haggard as you’d expect for a man who’d stayed sergeant into his 50s. His ruddy jowls had started to sag, along with his uniform, but he had hard eyes that I suspected had gotten harder every year. He used them to glance over me. It wasn’t sexual. I’m not his type, if you know what I mean. He was just checking me out, deciding if I was up to snuff.
“Few hours maybe,” he added. “Residents said they heard sounds of fighting a little after lunchtime. Walls here aren’t real thick. Family were frightened out of their wits when they left.”
“We have an ID?”
He shook his head. “Some kinda faith healer, I gathered. Family’s from Nigeria or Ghana or wherever. Wife had the flu and they brought this asshole in to take the evil spirit away. Then he went nuts. I dunno.” He squinted the side of his face.
“You been inside?” I motioned toward the half-open door just down the hall.
“Yeah. You know, reflective glass. Shows you what you looks like.”
He scowled. “Didn’t notice. I was too worried about the raving asshole with the gun. And getting the family to safety.”
“What about a TV?”
He thought. “Yeah. Flat screen in the living area. Why?”
I took off my sport coat and tossed it over the balustrade. It would only constrict me if there was a tussle. I unwound the silver talisman on the chain around my wrist and fastened it around my neck, making it look like an ordinary necklace. The chain was visible but not the carved silver disc that dangled from it.
“You sure you’re gonna be okay in there? Patrolman Meyers is an ass,” the sergeant said, motioning to the kid holding my gun, “but he’s not wrong.”
I nodded as I rolled up my sleeves. “Just keep everyone back. No matter what you hear. No matter how crazy it sounds. Alright? Keep the trigger fingers out until you hear from me. You’ll only make things worse.”
“Whatever you say.”
He was sarcastic. I didn’t care. Sgt. Rollins had the demeanor of a man who knew how to keep control of his men, which is all that mattered. And I trusted him, in a way. I trusted that after 30-some years on the force, he would do everything he could to make it the last few years to retirement.
I stepped lightly to the door and peered in. The guy must have caught sight of me, because he started screaming again in that unusual tongue. Now it was the same phrase over and over, like he wanted me to do something — get back, maybe. Or let him out. He was on the floor in the living room surrounded by a wide ring of salt, kneeling near the inside edge. He definitely had a gun, but judging from how he held it, may or may not have known what it was for. I pushed the door open slowly, my body turned in profile to make myself less of a target — just in case I was wrong.
I took a step and waited for a reaction. There was a closet door to my right and a small enclosed kitchen to my left. There was a couch and a tall potted plant across from a worn Ikea bookcase and the TV. There was a slider door at the back, bolted shut. And no balcony. Only one way out.
The walls and shelves all had bright, colorful African decor. Just in front of me on the hardwood, a zigzag-patterned rug had been rolled up and put out of the way, probably to make room for the salt. An open thirty-pound sack of the stuff sat next to the TV stand, topped with an inverted steel funnel.
The guy inside the ring was clearly African as well. He wore a white kufi cap on his head and matching gown. There were dots of white pigment evenly spaced across his brow. He was clutching a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver in one hand and wooden figurine in the other.
He yelled again and the gun went up, properly this time.
There went that theory.
I opened my hands and arms wide. “I’m not armed.”
He uttered what I’m sure was an insult — terse and angry. His voice didn’t quite match his body. Too deep.
I pulled my eyes from the gun barrel pointed at my chest and stole a quick glance at the earth-stained figurine. It was about a foot tall and shaped like a fat peg or stake. He gripped it by the tapered end, which wasn’t needle-sharp, like a stake, but it definitely wasn’t dull either. The top and center of the piece had been carved with wavy lines to resemble a head and body. The face had a simple, snarling visage. There was a thin, angular chain wrapped five or six times around the torso. It was the color of cast iron and looked hand-made. No two links were identical. Dangling from one of them was an open padlock, also cast iron. I guessed it was a spirit totem of some kind. I hadn’t seen one like it, but the symbolism of lock and chain are darn-near universal.
“Who’m I talking to?” I asked as I slowly shut the door behind me. I reached backward and locked it without looking.
He laughed desperately. He had the kind of crosshatched wrinkles you get after a life in the sun. His eyes were crazy bloodshot.
“So what do I call you?”
He laughed again, longer and louder. He was letting me know he wasn’t that stupid.
I scowled. The easiest way to bind any entity is with its real name. That’s why all the old medieval texts had three or four names for every “demon.” It was a ruse to evade capture. Most of them weren’t true demons, of course, just plain ol’ malignant spirits, like this one. An “Old Scratch,” my grandpa used to say, right before he spit. Most were opportunists, no different than a wasp or scavenger, and just as skittish — easily frightened by guardian statues and sacred objects. They almost never jumped hosts, even when they had a chance. As long as you had the right tools, they’d flee and take their chances on an easier target.
This one hadn’t. There had to be a reason for that.
“What do you want?” I asked.
His bloodshot eyes glanced to the salt ring.
“Well, see, that’s a problem.” I took another step forward.
He cocked the revolver calmly and deliberately. I heard the click in the now-quiet room. I had the sense that everyone in the building was holding their breath, trying to hear our words, which I’m sure rumbled through the thin walls as an undecipherable baritone.
I looked at the gun barrel. I was very aware that at that range, there wasn’t much chance he’d miss.
It seemed clear that the witch doctor had managed to get the bastard out of the sick wife but had lost control after that. Something went wrong and he couldn’t lock the chain in time. Maybe his hands shook. Maybe he dropped the lock. Who knew? But at least he’d made a good-sized salt ring. Not just wide but thick as well. That, plus the protective dots over his eyes, suggested experience. Pouring a ring like that takes a lot of salt and a lot of time and is a bitch to clean up after. Folks who don’t know any better read some instructions in a book and think any old ring will do. They use half a box of Morton’s, make a thin circle barely big enough to move in, and call it a day. But all it takes is one misstep to scuff a ring like that and break the seal, and then it doesn’t matter how good you are. It’s game over.
This guy had played it safe. He knew not to take chances. But then, he also hadn’t been too worried. He’d used a salt ring rather than something durable, like a painted conjuring circle with binding runes. That said to me he’d probably done simple exorcisms all the time back home, wherever that was, and he hadn’t expected this one to be any different. It was a mistake, and now he was paying for it.
I needed to know what I was up against.
I kept my arms open and nonthreatening. “You can shoot me if you want. I can’t stop you. But if you do, my friends are gonna shoot back.” I nodded toward the hall. “I’ll be dead, and so will that man you’re in, which means this whole place will turn into a crime scene and no one will touch anything until the forensics guys get here, which could take a while, especially since we’re coming up on rush hour.”
I nodded to the round plastic clock on the wall, just over the TV. I didn’t need to. I knew what time it was. It was just an excuse to glance down at the blank screen and confirm, up close, my suspicion that the two of us were alone and that man’s reflection matched his appearance. Which it did. That ruled a few things out.
Easy things, unfortunately.
I took another careful step forward. I wasn’t more than ten feet from the ring by then. “You’ll be trapped in that circle,” I said. “For a few hours at least, unbound and without a host. How long do you think you can hold your breath?”
His hand clenched the gun in anger. He was sweating.
So was I. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat nonchalantly.
Exorcism is tricky. It’s not just a fight. It’s a process of elimination. You start by ruling things out.
I could’ve been facing a witch, I thought, possessing the old man from afar. But then, a person probably wouldn’t be speaking Aramaic — or whatever it was. More than that, salt rings don’t retard normal human beings, so he could’ve walked out at any time.
For the same reason, I was pretty sure it wasn’t a demonic possession either. True demons are powerful entities that aren’t trapped so easily. Besides, no one runs into real demons anymore. The saints locked them all up ages ago.
It also could’ve been a ghost, the free-floating spirit of a dead person, but they can’t possess the living — at least, not unless the host is a medium or other sensitive. And even then, ghosts aren’t rational. They don’t realize they’re dead, which is why they’re stuck here reliving the tragedies of their lives. And that’s why, no matter what you read, a ghost is always dangerous, like a wild animal. Even the friendly ones can turn violent, and without warning. Because they’re reliving a trauma, their actions are detached from their surroundings, which is creepy as fuck, lemme tell you. And they speak in strange non sequiturs. They don’t calmly point guns and ask to be set loose.
Given the mirror test, and Ballantine’s report that the wife was seriously ill, I was 99% certain this Old Scratch was a “carrion ghoul,” for lack of a common name. You find them in pretty much everywhere — opportunistic spirits that pray on the sick and sinful. In the Philippines, they’re called Aswang, and it’s said they appear as the living in daytime, but with a nervous tic and bloodshot eyes — like this guy. At night, they become intangible and wander the streets in search of the sick and dying so they can slurp their intestines.
Those kinds of details are usually exaggerated, but relevant. Intestinal disease is how most people get sick in the tropical parts of the world. In other climates, you hear different stories. What’s the same is the remedy. People all over the world, from Peru to Siberia, consult a witch doctor when a family member falls victim to a sudden, strange, and undiagnosable illness.
If I was right, that meant neither vinegar nor iron nor running water would have any effect — a fact confirmed by the totem he was clutching in his hand. The cast iron was having no effect. Which sucked. Carrion ghouls are the worst kind of infectious spirit. Because their hosts are sick, they can burrow deep and get a tight grip. You can’t just scare them out with talismans and holy water. It takes violence. You have to pry them away. From the inside.
That means two things. First, you have to know where the sickness is. That’s usually not a problem for a witch doctor, who’ll have the family share all the relevant detail.
I had no such luck.
Second, you absolutely, positively cannot be wrong. If you go sticking someone in the wrong place, or if it’s not a carrion ghoul after all, well . . . You get the idea.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that there’s a foolproof diagnosis, or so our ancestors have warned us. If you can get close enough to see it, the reflection of the world in the glisten of the eyes is always upside down.
I looked at the heavy salt ring. I didn’t have a choice. I was gonna have to get inside with it.
My adversary seemed to understand my thoughts, because he smiled an awful, knowing smile. He lowered the gun. Now he wanted me inside that ring.
“Alright,” I whispered. “You wanna fight, let’s fight.”
I happened to know, from experience, that it takes a lot out of a spirit to worm its way into a new host, especially a witch doctor, who would know how to resist. On top of that, this one had been yelling, on and off, for an hour or two at least. Already his breath was long and irregular. He looked tired. Thirsty, too. Like we all get after a hard workout.
All I needed was a distraction.
I showed him my empty hands, like a magician before a trick. He watched them intently with those horribly bloodshot eyes as I reached into the pocket of my slacks and pulled out my keys. A small pocket knife dangled. I showed it to him, as if to say “See? Nothing to worry about.” I opened the inch-long blade. It was sharp. It slit the skin of my forearm with no trouble.
I clenched my teeth and hissed. It stung. It wasn’t a big cut, but it was enough to draw blood. That was the point.
The old witch doctor licked his lips.
I slipped my keys back into my pocket and stepped toward the circle, arm bared. He stood and stepped back from the edge, making room for me, but his eyes didn’t move from the deep red liquid slowly growing into a bulge on my skin.
I lifted my foot to step inside the ring when he shouted and raised the revolver without warning.
He sniffed the air once. Then twice. He was still clutching the totem in his left hand — no doubt to keep it away from me — and he lifted it and tapped his chest with the head.
I knew what he meant. He could smell the silver.
I scowled as I unhooked the talisman. But since my arm was still bleeding, a drop ran as soon as I moved. He watched it jump from my elbow and it hit the floor in a tiny splatter. It was only a moment.
But it was enough.
I ripped the talisman from my blouse and thrust it forward. It spun in the air, glimmering, and he flinched and turned with a growl. I sprang forward and the gun discharged the very second I knocked it away. The bullet hit the wall as I tackled my adversary to the floor.
See, kids. This is why you always, always, always make a big ring. His head landed right next to the far edge. If that circle had been any smaller, my tackle would’ve forced him across and broken the seal, and then who knew?
I had all my weight on him as I dangled the talisman in front of his eyes. I was sure I’d got the better of him.
But I was wrong.
He was strong. I could feel it immediately. That was why the old man had had so much trouble. I knew right away I couldn’t hold him. I leaned down quickly and caught my reflection in the glisten of his bloodshot eyes.
Definitely upside down.
He lifted me. Like I was nothing. He couldn’t approach the talisman, so he let go of the totem and lifted me, and with hardly any effort. That was unusual. That meant he was old — damned old, which made sense, I suppose, given his language of choice. I should have paid more attention to that. Lesson learned.
But now I was in trouble.
I sacrificed the talisman by throwing it in his face, which cause him to flinch and reach up to swat it away. He let go of me and I fell on my ass. I scrambled to the fallen gun and threw it into the open bathroom. It landed on the tile with a heavy thud just as I felt my adversary bite into my calf. In the scramble, my nice department store slacks had worked up my leg, revealing my skin. I felt teeth puncture my flesh.
Now, he didn’t bite me the way a child bites you, to inflict pain. He bit me the way you bite into a tough steak, the way you bite something you intend to tear loose with your canines and swallow. He was eating me.
I screamed. It hurt. It really hurt. And it took every last ounce of self control not to turn around and push and kick and fight him off, which is every creature’s natural response to being eaten alive. Instead, I whelped and whimpered as I used my flat palms to drag my torso in an arc across the hardwood. My quivering fingertips brushed against the wooden figurine, but I only knocked it further away.
That’s when he pulled with his head, teeth still clenched, and tore a flap of skin.
It’s the weirdest thing, lemme tell ya. It hurts like a motherfucker, of course, but it’s the raw sensation that gets you. Your dermis lifting. Air on your muscles.
I screamed again. And I meant this time, every last unintelligible syllable. It was primal — a completely irrational, uncontrollable wail. And I panicked. There had already been a gunshot. If my colleagues burst through the door and saw us like that, they would’ve opened fire. No questions. The old man would’ve been dead before he hit the floor. Only now I was wounded — not just the cut on my arm but a giant gash in my leg — which meant if his host died, the carrion ghoul would rush out of him and into me, which I’m pretty sure was the whole point of the attack in the first place. He had seen that I was some kind of authority figure. He’d been trapped before, and no one would let him out. If he could get into me, he’d walk free.
Normally I’d say “bring it” and go twelve rounds with the piece of shit. But normally I’m not going up against something three thousand years old, or whatever he was. Normally my mind isn’t spinning as it tries to process the sensation of being eaten. So if it came down to it, him versus me inside my own skull, I have no idea who would’ve won.
I kicked the old man with a heeled boot, right in the mouth. Once. Twice. Three times. But all I did was loosen some teeth and bloody the guy’s lip. Not that I’m weak or out of shape or anything. I was quite the kickboxer there for awhile. This ghoul simply didn’t care.
I went to kick again and he knocked my leg out of the way and lunged for my face. I got the old man’s dirty, salty, nicotine-stained fingers in my mouth and up my nose and I gagged. The ghoul forced my head back and down the floor. Hard. The old witch doctor opened his mouth over me, like he was going breath himself out. It stank like cigarette ash.
“Thanks,” I said.
I head-butted the guy. It didn’t do much, but it was enough for me to lunge for the totem. The ghoul’s powerful hands grabbed me immediately and pulled me back. But I didn’t fight. I just turned and rammed the wooden point right into the old guy’s chest.
The room dropped underneath me — as if the entire building, the entire city, had suddenly sunk four feet in space. I fell hard, along with everything else. The TV toppled and smashed on the hardwood. Books and pictures scattered. Water burst from the toilet.
The lock in my hand clicked shut from the force, and that was it. I collapsed, panting hard and in hella pain.
I heard banging on the front door. The handle jiggled and there were calls for the ram. I didn’t have long.
I struggled to my feet, where I immediately discovered that my right leg couldn’t take much weight, and I had to constantly shift to keep my balance. Blood ran down my skin into my shoe. I grabbed the old man by the arms and dragged him, unconscious, through the scattered salt to the bathroom. I pulled a heavy bath towel from the rack, wet it in the churning toilet, and wiped the blood off his mouth. I checked the hole in his gown from where I’d plunged the sharp end of the figurine. The skin underneath was clean and bare. And he was breathing.
The first swing of the battering ram cracked the frame but didn’t completely dislodge the bolt. I hobbled back to the living room and snatched the totem. When the door gave way and the patrolmen ran in, I was sitting on the toilet seat next to the moaning witch doctor.
“What took you so long?” I asked. I had the rolled towel pressed to the back of my bloody calf. I showed them the blood. “I’m gonna need a stretcher,” I explained and replaced it.
My colleagues swarmed around, Ballantine and Rollins and everyone, trying to make sense of the scene — the scattered salt, the shattered television, the blood on the hardwood. They tried to get me out of the apartment, but I absolutely refused to move from my porcelain throne until the paramedics came. Once I was on the stretcher, they asked to take the towel and I pointed across the room and demanded my amulet. I used some cuss words.
Ballantine took my statement at the hospital, where I watched a young resident stab my leg with a series of fat needles. I got a local anesthetic, a bunch of precautionary vaccines, and a shit-ton of stitches. He didn’t say out loud that he knew I’d been bitten, but he knew I’d been bitten.
Ballantine waited in the hall just past the hanging curtain. I told her the old guy was basically harmless, but that he might’ve had dementia or something, and that I’d tripped and fell over the TV, which was why it was broken, and that was how I’d gotten cut.
“What about the gunshot?” she asked.
“His hands were shaking. He didn’t understand why the cops were there. He was scared. He was sweating. His hands were shaking. I convinced him he wasn’t in danger, and when he went to lower the weapon, it slipped and discharged.”
She didn’t believe me. But she didn’t ask too many questions, either. As a cop, you’re afforded a certain amount of professional courtesy. Besides, it was my word against her suspicions, and since no one had died and I wasn’t pressing charges, there was no real incentive to push it.
That night, I treated myself to a Cuban from my secret stash. I sat on my balcony in my underwear with my bandaged leg on the railing and smoked that cigar to a nub while pulling swings from a bottle of fancy champagne. Just me and my drinking buddy: a foot-long wooden figurine, wrapped in a tarnished chain and locked tight. I had it swaddled in the towel. We had a nice chat. Pretty sure all he did was curse me in Aramaic.
The next day, I left the pain pills at home and walked with a pronounced limp into the office. I sat at my desk. I unlocked the bottom filing drawer and pulled it open with a grunt. It was getting heavy. And almost full. There was a painted mask, a goblet, a small collection of carved candles, some shiny bezoars, feathers, false talismans, a pygmy head, ampules of Komodo dragon spit, the teeth of a saint polished and laid into a tarnished silver cross, a broken wand, a rabbit’s foot, the taxidermied specimen of an extinct fish, a pair of eyeglasses made from the pupils of a martyr, and more. I tossed the wooden figurine onto the pile, rolled the drawer shut, and locked it.
I looked around the office. “The Killing Field” was stuffed. A few people were chatting. Lieutenant Miller was getting herself a coffee at the machine.
I turned on my computer and typed my password and a pleasant ding welcomed me. I wondered how many different ones the software company had tested before they settled on that specific ding.
I sat back and looked at the screen. I couldn’t prove it, but it sure seemed like there was a helluva lot more shit happening lately. And of the serious kind, too.
rough cut from my forthcoming occult mystery/supernatural thriller FEAST OF SHADOWS.
cover image by Faraz Shanyar